Why Play is Vital to Workplace Innovation


Workplace innovation requires creative thinking and creativity requires engaging employees in play. This oldie but goodie Ted Talk by Ideo’s creative genius, Tim Brown, sums up the importance of why play is essential to being creative. In today’s work culture, more and more companies are creating fun spaces complete with pinball machines, ping pong tables, gaming rooms and more to help stimulate employees’ imaginations. Innovation is the buzzword thrown around these days just about everywhere. Effective leaders need to constantly drive innovation as part of their strategy to succeed. In other words, they have to be creative. Jobs, Branson, Musk, Thiel, and many others all share this ability, which is what has made them so incredibly successful. What stands in the way of innovation? It’s a four-letter word whispered about. Fear. While it’s great to stand back and admire the geniuses that are transforming our world, many leaders are terrified of the consequences of failure. I see it all the time.

The challenge for many leaders revolves around how to successfully access creativity, harness it and take calculated risks not just as individuals, but also encouraging their departments and teams to do the same. In fact, creativity is essential to problem solving. It’s an ability effective managers draw upon daily. It’s about being able to see things differently and shift perspectives. The challenge is getting people to drop self-consciousness to be creative. As Tim Brown puts it “we fear the judgement of our pears,” we can’t be innovative. Fear is the major inhibiting factor preventing breakthrough creative solutions and answers to pressing problems.

Fear is the major inhibiting factor preventing breakthrough creative solutions and answers to pressing problems.

Here are five exercises you can use to get creativity flowing both within yourself and among your colleagues.

Safe space. As we become adults, we become overly sensitive to the opinion of others. Creating a place where people feel safe to let down their guard and play is critical. Google, Ideo, Apple, Facebook and other innovative companies have figured out that creating an atmosphere conducive to play is essential to the companies overall success. It’s about becoming engaged and open to possibilities. Give people safe parameters to play and think outside the box and then say, “Go for it.” By giving people permission to be creative, they feel safe to explore and take a chance at looking silly.

Brainstorm with a time limit. You want to curtail the self-edit process and encourage the free flow of ideas. The more outrageous, the better. Give your team the opportunity to get as many ideas down on paper as quickly as possible with a time limit. Whether it be drawing objects or brainstorming ideas, the idea is to get as many concepts down as quickly as possible. The process requires building trust, which is essential to fostering creativity. People have to feel secure to let go of the self-edit process. It is essential teams lose their resistance and self-consciousness in order to problem solve. By creating parameters, you approach opportunities for creativity like a controlled scientific experiment where you give people permission to draw outside the coloured lines.

Prototypes. Building prototypes is how many of us learn. Think about your 6th grade science class and building models. It was a great way to show your ideas and share with classmates. The same principle applies to work. When a group of people are working to improve a system or create a new model a prototype becomes a great collaborative vehicle. It can be a really rough prototype that allows for the brainstorming to be effective. It’s an example of where the quicker you get the prototype made the faster everyone can get on the same page. Don’t worry about it being perfect- focus on presenting the idea.

Role Play. Even if you’re not an actor, role-playing is an effective means to work the tweaks out and improve performance especially in a service environment or even in working through organisational issues. By putting yourself in the experience of another person, you can switch perspectives and gain insight into how to improve a service or fix a situation. Role-playing allows you to experience a situation from another perspective. You’re walking in someone else’s shoes. By going through the experience of role-playing, you can catch pitfalls, weaknesses and through direct experience figure out how to improve a scenario, relationship dynamic or service.

Don’t be afraid to break out of the box and unleash your childlike nature. Playfulness induces a state of openness. It’s by being open to possibilities that innovation occurs. Children see infinite possibilities where adults see only one option. By opening yourself up to play, you can tap into that childlike openness that is a great conductor of innovation. Encouraging more play at work will keep you and your organisation moving FORWARD.

Caroline Stokes is founder of FORWARD Human Capital Solutions.  FORWARD does things differently for people in digital organisations who demand inspiring talent solutions for transformative results.

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